Meltdown Terrorism
The New Nuclear Nightmare

by Michael I. Niman,, ArtVoice, December 5th, 2001.

  On September 11th a hijacked plane piloted by terrorist Mohammed Atta abruptly turned south near Albany, New York and followed the Hudson river down to New York City and into it’s target, the north tower of the World Trade Center.  En route it passed directly over the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 30 miles north of Manhattan.  Think about this for a second.  The “what ifs” of September 11th are mind-boggling.  What if Atta, a psychotic mass murderer en route to committing the worse act of non-wartime terrorism in history, chose to simply start pointing the giant Boeing’s nose downward s he passed Bear Mountain?  What if his flight was delayed at Boston’s Logan Airport and his fellow terrorists had beat him to the Twin Towers and he now feared fighters were scrambling?  What if he got the jitters?  What if he piloted the Boeing directly into the containment Building of Indian Point? 

The Ghost of NYC

Nuclear power plants house over a thousand times as much radiation as would be released during the explosion of an atomic bomb. And this release would be quick.  Greenpeace nuclear consultant Dr. Helmut Hirsh estimates that such a collision would cause a meltdown in less than one hour.  Unlike mechanical failure, which often unwinds over hours, allowing for efforts at regional evacuation, the quick meltdown brought on by a terrorist attack would result in far more fatalities.  The general consensus among experts is that this scenario would result in at least 100,000 immediate deaths and possibly millions of subsequent cancer related deaths.  The radioactive fallout would also render New York’s northern suburbs, and possibly, depending on weather conditions, the city itself, uninhabitable for decades.   The economic fallout would have simultaneously destroyed the economies of every western nation.  The ghostly image of an empty, dead, slowly decaying carcass of New York City, of a dark skyline, of traffic less bridges and highways, would forever stand as a monument to the triumph of terror.

  This would be our ultimate nightmare.  It’s not the World War Three scenario we all grew up with: mutually assured total destruction – over in one night.  No.  We’d have to live with this one.  We’d have to watch our friends and families die in the shadow of the empty city. 

  How close did we come to living this ghastly unthinkable reality?  If this is what Mohammed Atta wanted to do on September 11th, it would be our reality.  Atta, a mass murder, choose to go for the symbolic destruction of the Twin Towers instead of the wholesale destruction an Indian Point hit would have thrust upon the world.

Inadequate Containment Structures

  The nuclear industry has quickly scrambled to assure us that nuclear plants are protected by containment shells of up to four feet of concrete.  Planes, the argument goes, would just splatter on these structures like eggs thrown against a brick wall.  With two of the four nuclear power vendors in the world, General Electric and Westinghouse, owning two of the United States’ news networks, NBC and CBS, this reassuring contention has been getting lots of media play.  Sadly, however, the premise is false.  On September 11th, spokespeople for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission reassured us that indeed all US plants were built to withstand direct hits by Boeing 747s.   Since September 11th, however, the NRC has admitted that nuclear power plants in this country were indeed  not built to withstand the impact of jumbo jets such as Boeing 747s, 757s and 767s.  Furthermore, according to the Los Angeles Times, the NRC disclosed the fact that “detailed engineering analyses of a large airliner crash have not yet been performed,” hence, any assertion that plants can survive such a hit would be ungrounded.

  Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Washington D.C. based Nuclear Control Institute, a public interest organization concerned with threats of nuclear terrorism, challenges the notion that any plant can survive a hit by a large jetliner.  According to reports published by Chemical and Engineering News Today, Lyman asserts that the engines of such a plane would likely penetrate a four-foot thick containment structure, causing the immediate release of radioactive material.  Furthermore, he argues, even if the jetliner missed the containment structure, it could destroy control systems safeguarding the reactor, hence causing a meltdown.  As if this is not enough, an off-target aircraft could also wreak nuclear havoc by crashing into nearby pools containing spent fuel rods.

  The threat from above has prompted the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to ban small planes from flying over any of the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants.  The ban provides window trimming for a government trying to calm a weary populous.  In effect, however, it is meaningless.  The threat to our nuclear plants does not come from small private planes, but from hijacked commercial planes.  And hijacked commercial planes piloted by suicidal terrorists, of course, would not heed the FAA’s silly ban. 

Flight 93’s Nuclear Target

  Pennsylvania’s long troubled Three Mile Island nuclear plant may have already been targeted by the September 11th hijackers who took over United Airlines Flight 93, which eventually crashed in rural Pennsylvania.  The general consensus among GE and Westinghouse’s NBC and CBS journalists, as well as their peers in other corporate media outlets, is that Flight 93 was heading for either Washington D.C., or Camp David in Maryland.  If it was heading to the Washington area, however, it certainly was taking a long circumferential route – one that would put it on a path to Three Mile Island (TMI).  TMI is probably the best known and most studied of America’s reactor clusters.  Engineering drawings of the plant as well as kill zone maps showing the crippling effect of a TMI meltdown to the east coast have been widely available in the media due to the 1979 accident at the complex, making it an ideal terrorist target.  The prospect of a nuclear target on September 11th, however, is a taboo topic in much of the media since it has the potential to reinvigorate the anti-nuclear movement at the very moment the Bush administration is suggesting commissioning the first new nuke plants in over 20 years.

  We’ll never know for certain where the hijackers planned to take Flight 93.  We do see circumstantial evidence, however, of terrorists returning to sites of previous failed attacks, such as the Twin Towers.   The continuing threat against TMI is real enough to have caused the US Air Force to order three F-16 fighter jets to provide air cover around the plant on October 17th. 

America’s History of Nuclear Sabotage

  Airplanes, and even truck bombs, however, are far from being the only terrorist threat facing the world’s nuclear power plants.  Robert Pollard, a former NRC engineer, told a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper reporter that there is currently enough information about nuclear power plants in the public domain, that a person with basic knowledge of nuclear plant design can now easily sabotage a plant if they were to gain entry to it.  Such sabotage isn’t confined to the realm of the hypothetical.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there have already been over 120 acts of sabotage committed, often by disgruntled employees, at American nuclear power plants. 

  It is unlikely, according to the NRC, that such sabotage would cause a full scale melt down since multiple safety systems would have to be disabled simultaneously.  The NRC, however, was basing their prediction on the existing profiles of nuclear mischief-makers – lone lunatics.  Today’s sophisticated terror networks pose a more alarming threat. Fox News recently reported the assertion that al Qaeda terrorists were trained to facilitate full-scale meltdowns orchestrated from the control rooms of nuclear plants.  If this report were true, the terrorists’ main challenge would be to gain entry to the control rooms.

Failed Security Systems

  In an effort to avert a terrorist-caused nuclear disaster, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), following September 11th, called on the world’s nuclear nations to tighten security at all of their nuclear facilities.  American facilities, in particular, were, and still are, lax with security.  Prior to and during 1998, the NRC, through its Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation (OSRE) program, staged mock attacks on US nuclear power plants in an effort to assess their security readiness.  Of the 57 plants “attacked,” ersatz adversaries showed the potential to cause “significant core damage” at 27 plants.  Most of the plants that failed were actually in compliance with NRC security regulations and had received warning of the impending exercises many months in advance.  Despite increasing their security forces by an average of 80%, nearly half of the plants failed the exercise, falling under control of mock bands of “terrorists.”

Late in 1998, rather than attend to this potentially catastrophic problem, the NRC chose instead to secretly disband the OSRE program, effectively eliminating the security exercises.  The cancellation of the OSRE program came on the heals of numerous complaints by commercial nuclear plant operators who contended the NRC lacked the legal authority to force them to participate in the exercises.  Critics saw the disbanding of the OSRE program as a case of shooting the messenger.  In the spring of 2000, the White House ordered the program restored after whistle-blowers leaked news of its cancellation to the press.  Since the reinstatement of OSRE testing, the failure rate of security teams at US nuclear power plants has remained at a dismal 50%. 

While large scale terrorist attacks against nuclear plants in the US have yet to occur, such attacks have already occurred in other countries.  Forces took over an apartheid era nuclear plant near Cape Town, South Africa, causing extensive damage to the control room.  Plants in Argentina and Spain have likewise suffered control room takeovers.  A non-operational French plant was attacked by anti-tank missiles.  Armed units have also launched attacks on reactors in Lithuania, Russia and South Korea.

Missile Defense?

The French government, in response to the new threat of nuclear terrorism, has employed surface to air missiles at all of their nuclear plants.  The missiles however, only protect the plants from one specific threat – airliners. Threats from truck bombs, forced seizure of control rooms, insider sabotage and as yet unimagined land based attacks are immune from such a missile defense system.  Furthermore, installing air defense batteries at the world’s 431 commercial nuclear reactors has the potential to cause new sorts of mayhem.  The gun batteries, operated by threat fatigued recruits on around the clock alert, will eventually shoot down civilian airliners that for a number of reasons ranging from instrument failure to pilot error, stray too close to any one of these hundreds of hostile gun emplacements. 

France is absolutely addicted to nuclear power, generating over 78% of its electricity with nuclear power.  Their move to install gun batteries to defend those plants is a move born in utter desperation.  France, a nation four-fifths the size of Texas, is now riddled with 58 active gun batteries pointing skyward, making for very perilous conditions for aviators while failing to adequately secure nuclear plants on the ground.  The Czech Republic has followed France’s lead, installing air defense missiles at their plants as well. 

Air defense systems, however, represent a desperate and futile attempt at securing nuclear power plants from terrorism.  Put simply, they are the manifestation of what George Orwell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsford, and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers all refer to as “Oldthink.”  Confronting the threat of nuclear terrorism requires us to evolve beyond the traditional knee-jerk military reactions.  Matt Bunn of Harvard University and George Bunn of Stanford University, speaking recently to the Atomic Energy Safeguards Symposium in Vienna, argue that “a world that includes highly capable terrorist organizations with global reach, bent on causing mass destruction, is a world that is less favorable to technologies that concentrate immense quantities of value and potential vulnerability in one place – including nuclear energy.”  The Bunn brothers point out that the need and costs of the quasi-militarization needed to try to protect nuclear plants must be factored in when communities evaluate alternative energy options.

Shut Them Down Now

For a sane rational mind there is only one option in confronting the threat of nuclear terrorism – shut all the damned plants down immediately.  The added threat of terrorism is the final straw - coupled with all the existing dangers associated with nuclear power, the technology’s obsolescence is clear.  Here in the US, nuclear power plants generate less than 20% of our electric energy.  Last year, Californians, faced with skyrocketing electric costs showed the nation that they could cut their electric usage by 10% through conservation.  Matching their effort would be a start as we struggle to immediately take our most vulnerable nuclear plants off-line.  During World War II, Americans conserved everything from paper and rubber, to oil, in an effort to support the war effort.  Taking George Bush at his word, that we are “at war,” cutting our electric usage seems like a minimal sacrifice, especially since the motivation is to save our own lives from catastrophe.

The long-term outlook is brighter.  The US Department of Energy estimates that a 10-mile by 10-mile square of solar panels located in a place such as Nevada would generate enough electricity to meet all current power needs of the US.  Other currently employable alternative technologies include wind power and tidal power.  Our dependence on nuclear power, like our dependence on dirty burning oil and coal, is a political construct, not a scientifically mandated reality.  We need to abandon these obsolete technologies and embark on a never before seen wartime capitol project to build a new energy infrastructure from the ground up.  Future energy savings would pay for the project while the actual construction effort would provide a true economic stimulus package, pulling the economy out of recession while giving a boost to the ailing high tech sector.  Not only would it enable us to abandon nuclear energy once and for all, but it would also cut our dependence on foreign oil and negate the argument to drill in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.  The Sacramento California Municipal Utility District has already led the way, shutting down nuclear reactors and replacing them with fields of solar collectors.  Sanity mandates that we as a nation follow this municipality’s example.

Of course, the sane approach to our energy, environmental and terrorism problems also means taking on the oil and nuclear power industries – industries that are intimately tied to both our national government and our media.  At this point in history, however, our very survival mandates that we challenge the greed and corruption of our nation’s leading institutions.  Let’s get sane. 

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